When a student becomes confrontational, Pinellas County teachers have a special weapon to defuse the situation.
By JOHN BARRY
Published August 6, 2006
SAFETY HARBOR - Now that they’ve kicked and choked and pulled each other’s hair, the teachers of Safety Harbor Elementary are all ready for a new school year.
Last week, they put aside all other classroom preparations. They turned off their computers. They stopped stacking books and printing lesson plans. Cindy Bania, their coach-referee, lined them up in two rows in the school library.
She made them shake hands.
“I’ve been practicing this a long time,” Bania assured them. “Thank goodness, no one has died.”
Then, they clenched their fists and swung. They aimed their feet at kneecaps. They went for the hair. Someone asked, “What’s a roundhouse kick?” Another said, “You don’t want to know.”
They grimaced and howled and shrieked. A teacher went for the groin.
Six hours went by before the dust settled. Teacher Lisa Austin confessed to colleague David Brownfield, “I wanted to smack you, Dave! I wanted to take you down!”
All this goes back to March 2005 when the Pinellas County School District made national headlines.
Everyone remembers the infamous video from Fairmount Park Elementary that played endlessly on TV news. It showed a 5-year-old girl, upset over a jellybean game, ransacking her classroom and punching an assistant principal. Cops took the little girl away in handcuffs.
Afterward, Pinellas County schools intensified training of teachers in how to handle children who lose all control.
Bania, a 27-year veteran special ed teacher and former principal, joined a team of trainers in “nonviolent crisis intervention.” All county teachers have to take the course.
Last week at Safety Harbor, she called the handcuffing incident “a great learning opportunity.”
Every classroom explosion has a prelude. A child may start to pace, or drum his fingers, or snap his pencils. He then becomes defensive, he tells the teacher to keep away, he begins to “lose some rationality,” Bania says.
Those are all opportunities for early intervention, she tells the Safety Harbor teachers, chances to show sympathy, set limits, and present the child with ways to calm down.
But things can go downhill very quickly.
When a child loses control, he becomes what the school district defines as an “AOP,” an acting out person. That means the child has become a danger to himself or others.
It’s time for teachers to assume the “Supportive Stance.”
Bania has the Safety Harbor teachers line up in facing rows. One plays the AOP, the other the teacher. The AOP is defiant. He looks ready to fight. “You’re not going to make me do anything,” he says.
Each teacher approaches an AOP, then stops about 3 feet away. She takes a couple more small steps. Then she turns sideways. She turns her head to face the AOP.
That’s the Supportive Stance.
“You’re not confrontational,” Bania says. “But keep your hands at your sides. You’re going to need them.”
First-grade teacher Tara Hinson is the daughter of two school principals. She has a sister who was a physical education assistant at a county elementary school until she was fired last year.
Hinson’s sister was accused of “leg-swiping” a first-grader to the ground and pushing her face in the sand after the child had ripped an earring from the ear of another assistant.
As Hinson watches Bania coach her colleagues in the school library, she says she still wonders what her
sister could have done differently. Would the Supportive Stance have helped?
“Things happen so fast you can’t go through all the steps,” Hinson says. “What do you do when a teacher is standing there with blood coming out of her ear?”
After lunch, Bania puts the teachers back in opposing rows. They’re going to practice defenses against “strikes and grabs.”
Bania tells them a strike “is a weapon coming in contact with a target.” A grab is “the control or destruction of part of one’s anatomy.”
The teachers groan.
She tells them they will have a “psychological advantage” after completing the training.
“You will be calm because you have a plan. You will know the techniques. You will have the element of surprise because they don’t know that you know how to get out of this stuff.”
Then the teachers come at each other again.
The AOPs throw punches. The teachers raise arms, block the punches and slide away. “Block and move!” Bania yells.
The AOPs go for a kick in the shins. Each teacher puts a leg out and deflects the kick with the bottom of his or her shoe.
All the while, everyone is howling and laughing. Someone yells, “Baby, let’s go!”
Bania tells them she has a super-sized bathtub “I can’t afford” that she soaks in after especially tough days in the classroom. She says the tub is her “positive outlet for negative energy.” Everyone needs something.
“Besides drinking,” a teacher calls out.
As a principal, Bania once begged a child not to kill himself after a cafeteria worker wouldn’t let him eat before lunch hour.
The boy had run across the street, climbed four flights of stairs in an apartment building and dangled himself from a balcony railing.
Bania begged him to come down. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I’m starving,” he said.
“How can I help?”
“I want a Taco Bell pizza.”
She promised him a pizza, and he came down. He got it.
“If you make a promise, you have to keep it,” she tells the teachers.
The teachers and AOPs move on to hair-pulling and choking.
Amid more howling and laughing, they practice the prescribed “one-hand hair pull release” and the “two- hand hair pull release.” Then they practice the “back choke release” and the “front choke release.”
A choke hold “is one of the scariest things to get out of,” Bania tells them. “But I have the psychological advantage. I have the plan.
“Will someone please come up and choke me?”
As an AOP (actually a large, muscle-bound fifth-grade teacher) grabs her by the throat, she quickly raises both her arms and twists her body. She breaks the grip and slides away.
“It’s got to be fast, or he’s going to grip me harder,” she says. “But I have the plan.”
After the class, the teachers gather up all the jewelry they took off before the grabbing and choking. They say they don’t think they’ll be needing their Supportive Stance any time soon. Not at Safety Harbor.
“We have the best kids here,” says Bob Ferguson, another fifth-grade teacher. “I’ve been involved in only one incident in all my 15 years-plus here. And it wasn’t a kid, it was a father. He exploded during a teacher conference.
“I didn’t do the Supportive Stance. I stepped out of the room and called the police.”
John Barry can be reached at (727) 892-2258 or firstname.lastname@example.org.